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THE LUMINOUS COSMOS OF ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT

Here´s a man who needs no introduction. In fact, it would be far easier to name the things Alexander von Humboldt did NOT do than to properly quote all of his achievements. He was “the last universal man” whose death in 1859 is often said to have marked the end of a great era of science, curiosity and of open-minded intellectual pursuit.

Born in Jägerstraße in Mitte (the house does not exist anymore), he and his equally famous brother, Wilhelm, spent their childhood in Tegel: Schloß Tegel with its beautiful park located on the northern shore of the Tegel Lake was Wilhelm´s and Alexander´s playground and their first site for curious exploration. The park is home to an approximately 800-year-old oak tree – the oldest tree in Berlin – which the boys named “Fat Mary” (Dicke Marie) after the family cook.

Alexander von Humboldt´s travels and the accounts of his discoveries are legendary. His five-volume work, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the World, whose first volume was published in 1845 and the last appeared posthumously in 1862, is considered to be a superb example of enlightened approach to science and exploration. It is also, it should be mentioned, a great read, too (something that, sadly, cannot be said about many famous academic works of its kind). Von Humboldt based Cosmos on a series of lectures he gave at Berlin´s University in 1827-28 – lectures he delivered with no notes, only outlines to rely on while speaking, and presented with such passion as well as deep knowledge of the subject that people flocked to listen to him talk about things they often had no idea about. This only confirmed von Humboldt´s, and Sir Francis Bacon´s before him, belief: knowledge should come from verifiable experience. However, in its absence (after all, not everyone could afford to explore Russia or South America or study the nature of metals) scientific facts might be enough to raise curiosity and encourage imagination.

Alexander von Humboldt in his library in the house in Oranienburger Straße 67, painted in 1856 by Eduard Hildebrant (image through the digital collection of the Princeton University).

Alexander von Humboldt in his library in the house in Oranienburger Straße 67, painted in 1856 by Eduard Hildebrant (image through the digital collection of the Princeton University).

Between 1827 and his death in 1859 Alexander von Humboldt lived in Oranienburger Straße 67 in Mitte. He was widely respected and tremendously accomplished, which makes it even more difficult to believe that he died penniless and possessing nothing. Alexander von Humboldt, the man who set new standards for science and whose name has been immortalised in place names (like Berlin´s Humboldthain; Humboldt Bay and Humboldt River in the USA, Mount Humboldt on a South Pacific island in New Caledonia), names of several plants and animals (such as Spheniscus humboldti or Humboldt Penguin and Mammillaria humboldtii or Humboldt cactus among others) as well as in the names of famous balloons, sailing ships, organisations and universities, had to pass all his possessions onto his servant, a valet, whom he had otherwise been unable to pay. The great scientist was buried next to his beloved brother, Wilhelm, at the family cemetery in Tegel.

Today, September 14th, marks Alexander von Humboldt´s 247th birthday.

One comment on “THE LUMINOUS COSMOS OF ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT

  1. penwithlit
    September 14, 2016

    Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    A great man subject of two recent books and a film-I think!

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